From Murphy Hall
Within 10 years, any one of us will be able to completely sequence our own genome for less than $1,000. We will have the capability to understand how our mix of genetic variants predisposes us to particular diseases and temperaments. The completion of the essential human-genome sequence in 2003 provided a map of our basic genetic makeup. Deciphering the code of the human genome is a monumental achievement, leading to an understanding of many human traits, including some associated with disease, aging, mental illness and other human conditions.
Clearly, this breakthrough is revolutionizing medicine and the life sciences at a rapid-fire rate. At UCLA, at least 16 departments and more than 20 organized research units contribute to the scholarly exploration of the field. We have the technology platforms — such as bioinformatics and biochemical instrumentation — that are essential to advancing knowledge in genomics, genetics and proteomics. And we are implementing curricular innovations related to this topic across the academic spectrum — from the development of a curriculum for secondary education to an undergraduate major for premedical and prelaw students to the initiation of a graduate program.
But the impact of the Human Genome Project reaches far beyond science. Its reverberations are being felt in business, law, public policy, psychology, philosophy, the humanities and the arts; indeed, almost every field is affected. Because along with the scientific discoveries come momentous changes in our understanding of the human condition — our hopes, fears, aspirations, values and even our identities.
These changes present powerful questions: If we can know with certainty our individual genetic makeup, what are the medical, legal, ethical and personal obligations in responding to potentially life-altering information? How do we resolve the moral and legal quandaries that will no doubt arise? We must begin to address these questions now, before events overtake our ability to respond to them thoughtfully.
Toward that end, in 2001 we established the UCLA Center for Society, the Individual and Genetics (now known as the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics), with the broadest disciplinary charge of any university program devoted to genetics. The center is dedicated to educating professionals and the public about the intersection of genetics and society and to providing direction to the coevolution of science and humanity. Those involved are grappling with some of the most challenging issues ever confronted by our society. How will we approach issues regarding race or ethnicity and our concepts of group identity; privacy and our desire for advances in research; information we learn about our genetic predisposition and the desired response of health-insurance providers? How will we balance the interests of the individual with those of society?
These are complicated issues, reflecting various trade-offs that we must consider on many levels. I applaud the center’s efforts to bring these critical issues to the fore in a thoughtful, enlightened way and to inform and engage the broader community in these profound discussions.
Because our responses to these challenges must be multidisciplinary, and because we take very seriously our responsibility to prepare future leaders and thinkers, we offer a yearlong freshman course in biotechnology and society, team-taught by leading faculty in ethics and biology and focusing on ethical and social implications of new technologies and applications. Typically nonscience majors, the students perform sophisticated genetic-engineering techniques and, in collaboration with other students, contribute to new research by helping to sequence and analyze an uncharacterized microbial genome. They study with cutting-edge scientists and scholars. The goal is that they will learn to make wise decisions about these issues, operating from understanding rather than from fear or ignorance.
UCLA’s threefold mission comprises teaching, research and service. As a major public research university, we remain fully committed to advancing the scientific and health-related aspects of genetics. At the same time, we are teaching students — from freshmen to postdocs — about the nuances and implications of this science. And we are devoted to helping our society understand, and thus shape, how these developments affect our
culture and our daily lives.